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Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools… (2008)
by Charles Murray
No current Talk conversations about this book.
Thought provoking if nothing else. He makes his case in clear and certain terms. His thinking has some flaws but he means well and there is a kernel of truth (in some cases more than a kernel) in what he says.
My immediate impression of Charles Murray's Real Education is that he's right, but in that blunt way one is by pointing out the elephant in the room. America's educational system is tangled with so much more than the business of learning that Murray's assessment will come across as hostile, and he'll be ignored or ostracized. And this leads to my second impression, which is how much educational romanticism is infused with the American identity. This has been the case for over a hundred years and it might be impossible to change.
As stated in the introduction, this book is about four simple truths of education: (1) Ability varies, (2) Half of the children are below average, (3) Too many are going to college, and (4) America's future depends on how we educate the academically gifted. It's also implied that these truths are ignored or forgotten. You'll find some condescension in the author’s tone throughout, but nothing to suggest he's intentionally trying to be provocative. Murray is merely calling it like he sees it, and then backing up his claims with evidence.
This is my second Charles Murray book after reading Coming Apart last year. Count me as a new fan.
I was able to read the book in a day. Not necessarily because "it was that good", I just wanted to finish reading it so I could get on with my life. It is not a book I wanted to hang on to for a long period of time.
Murray's credentials seems to be that he had kids in school at one time, and that he went to Harvard. His main thesis is that only 10% of the most academically gifted should be allowed into college. I'm guessing that he just barely made it at 10% and wants to shut the door behind him. After all, it is the elite 10% (1%?) who run everything anyway so stop pretending that it isn't. And stop wasting everyone's time by trying to force people to be who they are not.
His four simple truths are:
1. Ability varies.
2. Half the children are below average.
3. Too many people are going to college.
4. America's future depends on how we educate the academically gifted.
They are not just simple truths, they are simplistic. It is over-simplistic. The book reads like a very long letter to the editor.
The book is not without its merits. My favorite quote can be found on the last page: "They (children) will have succeeded if they discover something they love doing and learn to do it well." I can't argue with that.
This book is a no-nonsense approach to the nations educational problems. His basic principles are either self-evident or common-sense, when considered thoughtfully. His findings are typically well-backed up by statistics and it is clear that he is thoughtfully considered not only about what education should look like in America, but also what is possible considering the cultural and political realities. I would highly recommend this book to anyone concerned about the nation's educational system, which ought to include any educator, college student, or parent.
References to this work on external resources.
Wikipedia in English (2)
The controversial author of "The Bell Curve" returns with a groundbreaking manifesto to transform American education. He presents the four simple truths that parents and educators should confront to precipitate change--that ability varies, that half of the children are below average, that too many people are going to college, and that America's future depends on how we educate the academically gifted. Real Education describes the technological and economic trends that are creating options for parents who want the right education for their children, teachers who want to be free to teach again, and young people who want to find something they love doing and learn how to do it well.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)370.973 — Social sciences Education Education History, geographic treatment, biography North America United States
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An easy read. I finished in it a day, but then my computer has been acting up.
The four simple truths Murray talks about are:
Half of the children are below average.
Too many people are going to college.
America's future depends on how we educate the academically gifted.
The first seems so obvious it cannot be disputed. What matter i how great the differences in ability are, how malleable they are, and how correlated they are. Murray tells us the differences are quite substantial. To illustrate, he points out that any reader who has gotten this far in his book is certainly in the top 20% of American academically, and then he shows us the kinds of questions posed on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) that half of eight graders cannot correctly answer. It's hard to come away from this with any impression but that, yeah, some kids are dumber than stumps. Murray, of course, never puts it that bluntly. In fact, he refuses even to use the word "intelligence", using "ability" everywhere instead.
Murray also tells us the differences are extraordinarily resistant to efforts to change them. He argues that lifetime academic ability can be successfully predicted with high confidence for any population from evaluations of first grade children. Some interventions increase IQ significantly, but the evidence is that the benefit is transitory. Murray suggests that very early intervention might do better, though he caveats this with some observations about the lack of effectiveness of Head Start.
Ability is highly correlated. Murray talks a lot about g, the basic measure of ability that is hard to pin down but seems to come out clearly in all the statistics. He talks about various kinds of ability and notes that all are correlated with g, hence with each other, though the correlation is strongest among the three academic abilities (spatial ability, linguistic ability, and logical-mathematical ability) and weakest with bodily-kinesthetic ability. Some of these abilities are more important than others: Bodily-kinesthetic, musical, and most aspects of spatial ability are not terribly important, while interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic, and logical-mathematical are essential for almost anyone wanting to be successful. I note that I am objectively strong in three of these four, and my objective weakness at the fourth has probably kept me a low-level government scientist-drone instead of a highly successful university researcher. So the correlation is not perfect in individuals, but it is very strong across groups. The point? The notion that every child is good at something, and that something should be identified and nurtured, is romantic foolishness. Incapable kids tend to be incapable at everything.
Half of children are below average. Well, duh. But this makes No Child Left Behind pure educational romantic nonsense. Murray suggests that maybe we ought to accept this and look for educational policies that do something for the below-average kids, who will always be with us. His answer is career and technical education. Shop class, but taken seriously by all concerned. He makes a strong case that there are much, much better alternatives to college for about 90% of kids.
Which brings up: Too many people are going to college. Murray argues that between 20% and 10% of kids have the chops to really benefit from a liberal education, which is what he thinks college is supposed to be about. (I trust you all understand that "liberal" as it is used here has nothing to do with Transgendered African Marxist Studies or the United States Democratic Party.) He further argues that even many of those with the minimum aptitude would be a lot happier doing something else. His example is a kid at about the 80% percentile of academic ability who likes working with his hands, has some excellent fine motor skills, but likes the idea of working behind a desk as a highly paid manager. Murray goes through the considerations and shows how the kid will almost certainly be richer and happier being an electrician -- but he will almost certainly never be advised to do anything but college, for reasons Murray analyzes in some depth. Murray makes an observation I have made many times here in Northern New Mexico: One can usually find a competent doctor or lawyer, but try finding a competent skilled laborer.
Murray does not argue that we should have a ruling elite. He argues that we have a ruling elite whether we like it or not, largely unelected, and that the current ruling elite are nice people who, in a certain moral and ethical sense, cannot find their butts with both hands. Um, duh. He mentions the value of religion briefly, but then moves on to discuss how a secular liberal education can be enormously helpful in teaching the future ruling elite what it means to seek the Good, rather than just be nice. He is highly nonpartisan here. (In fact, I've read nothing by Murray that reveals any partisanship -- I suspect it's purely The Bell Curve that has gotten him labeled "right-wing", though his criticism of education is something I'd never expect to see out of today's Left. (Perhaps in the Left of my childhood. See: Patrick Moynihan.))
A couple of other interesting observations running against the conventional wisdom:
The vast majority of schools cannot expect to see significant increases in math and verbal test scores through any conceivable reform. This is consistent with how we're starting to see the anti-school-choice people crowing over the failure of vouchers and school choice to raise test scores. We're already doing as well as we reasonably can in those areas -- with the exception of the very worst urban schools, but these are an outlier representing less than 2% of students. Yes, reform them. Reform the other schools, too, but not because we expect to raise math and verbal scores. We already picked all the low-hanging fruit in this area in the early 20th century.
We see curricula for 19th-century high school students circulated at times, and we think it proves our students can do better than they do. Murray disagrees. Half of all adults in 1900 never attended high school. All the below-average students were already filtered out by the time they got to high school and faced those curricula.
Curricula could nonetheless be a lot better. Murray quite likes Core Knowledge Curriculum, not to be confused (under any circumstances!) with Common Core. He compares the concrete requirements of this curriculum with the fuzzy requirements of the modern, well-funded, Progressive school system his kids attended in Maryland. Ugg.
A lot of worthwhile stuff here. A lot I'm going to have to think about. I really resist the notion that we're already doing all we can for below-average kids, and we really can't expect more of them, but Murray makes the case pretty strongly. Thumbs up, if only for the provocation to think about my assumptions about education. ( )